Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mothers in My Books

Rita Rooney Orr
I don't have enough of them. The strongest is Aunt Madge in the Jolie Gentil series, and you could call her Jolie's Mother-in-Spirit. (Jolie's mom is...problematic and rarely appears in person.)

I have two aunts I was especially close to (Marguerite and Mary Doris), so perhaps that's why Madge seems so real to me.

Why not more moms? I've finally decided that it's in part because my mom is not someone who could be replicated -- not that I base ANY fictional character on ANY people I know. Rita Rooney Orr was strong, nurturing, funny, kind, and uncomplaining. No character I create could even come close.

A new series I'm working on has to involve the main character's mom in some way (for the rest of it to work). I realize I haven't thought through her character well. So, here's a commitment to develop a strong mother in the new series. (Sorry, no hints.)

Happy Mother's Day to all the great women I know.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Organizing for Nonfiction Projects

In fiction, some authors self-identify as detailed outliners (of plot and characters) or pantsers. The latter wing it, at least as they start a book, and maybe all the way through.

I wrote nonfiction for years. I don’t see how it’s possible to write a piece on a period in history or a new manufacturing method without getting organized first. 

Maybe it’s me, but ideas don’t always come in logical order. 

Every project starts with a blank page. My suggestion would be to dash off a few paragraphs or pages to describe your idea – anything to get your first thoughts on paper. Then take some time and organize your thoughts. Here are some things to ask yourself.
  • Who do I want to read what I’m about to write?
  • Is everything I need to know to write this article or book in my head, or do I need to do some more research?
  • If I need to learn more, is the information available by reading, or do I need to talk to some people?
  • What are the most important things (as of now) that I want to say?
  • Does it matter when I finish?
These are just a few starter questions. Believe it or not, the first is the most important. Who you write to (an audience that knows a lot about the topic or a community newspaper) makes all the difference in how you present the article or book. 

Everything from vocabulary to sentence length is determined by your reader base. You don’t have to know how it will vary immediately, but keep the audience in mind. 

Once you’ve thought about these basic questions, make a list of the order in which you want to present information. It won’t be in the exact order at first. 

As you start to write, you can add to the list or move things around. Let’s say your audience is twenty-somethings who grew up using GPS systems. It could be that after you write a few paragraphs about how to  use a map you realize you need to explain what one is, and how there were initially none when pioneers crossed the United States. It’s all about perspective. 

Speaking of maps…The best reason to have a list or more detailed outline is that you’ll have a sense of when to stop writing. Your points should be building to an end, perhaps an important conclusion. Without some advance thinking, how will you know when you get there? 
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Common Questions Authors Get

Every author who gives talks at libraries or speaks to someone thinking about writing gets similar questions. In most cases, I say people should use their best judgment and do what applies best to them. However, there are some common considerations in making those choices.

Should you use a pen name? 
Before he settled on Mark Twain, Samuel Clemons used pseudonyms such as Thomas Jefferson
Snodgrass. I’m glad he settled on Twain. There are reasons to use a pen name—maybe you plan to write fiction and nonfiction, and you don’t want to confuse readers. Maybe you want to write racy sex scenes and you don’t want your boss or grandchildren to know you penned them.

Nora Roberts writes romances with her real name, but she publishes her mysteries as J.D. Robb. Clarity for readers. Do as you want, but if you choose a pen name, make sure it’s unique.

Who copyrights a book? 
When you write a book, you establish your copyright, automatically, according to U.S. Law. The copyright is valid until 90 years after the author's death, and cannot be  renewed. You can choose to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. Check out these fact sheets.

Do you need an ISBN?
Not necessarily, but it helps. Amazon assigns an ASIN to each book, and it has become a commonly accepted book identifier. Other sites (Smashwords for ebooks, Amazon KDP or Barnes and Noble for paperbacks) provide free ISBNs.

I began buying ISBNs as Lifelong Dreams Publishing in 1995. The process is managed by Bowker and means your work is in Books in Print. One costs $125 (!), ten are $295, and one-hundred are $575. Don't spend money you don't have, but buying ten could be a good goal. It may sound flippant to say have a rummage sale to raise $295, but it's worth considering.

Should you get a Library of Congress Preassigned number for paperbacks? 
While buying ten or more ISBNs is optional, doing so is important if you want to sell (or donate) to libraries. Publishers (those who buy ten or more ISBNs) can get a free Library of Congress Preassigned Control Number, (PCN) which helps libraries catalog books.

The PCN program enables the Library of Congress to "assign control numbers in advance of publication to those paperback or hardcover titles that may be added to the library's collections."
Publishers (not authors who buy only one ISBN) apply to participate in the program, and they submit an application for each hard copy (not ebook). The process is seamless – and free.

What is the impact of earning money on taxes or Social Security Income? 
No legal or financial advice here. You do need to declare your book income on taxes. If you collect Social Security at age 62 (or between then and your full retirement age), there are limits to income you can earn without getting your Social Security payments reduced. There is information at or, or you can consult an accountant.

Are family secrets yours to display? 
In a word, no. Not unless you have permission of others involved. If you are the child of a Hollywood star or politician, you could argue that they are public figures so you can expose whatever you want. The fact that your Great Aunt Tillie had a child out of wedlock is none of your business—in terms of publishing it. Good luck getting to know the cousins you just learned about. Any doubts about telling family secrets or using names of real people in your writing, consult a lawyer.

Can you base fiction on real events?
There is certainly true crime writing, and you’ll see disclaimers such as, “Inspired by the events of xxx, but all characters and actions are works of the author’s imagination.”

Ideas pop out of the newspaper every day. One of my books came about because I read that police who seized hydroponic growing equipment turned it over to local schools. That led me to wonder what would happen if seized computers had information hidden on them.

If you can only structure a story based on actual events, or you think of all your characters in terms of people you know, you may be limiting your imagination.

You could also be limiting a character by thinking, “Great Aunt Tillie wouldn’t really do that.” Fictional characters have no boundaries—though they do need to be consistent (most of the time).
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Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Hardest Part of Writing a Mystery Series

When I started writing the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series in 2004 (yes, 2004, even though not first published until 2011), I planned the first three books. Appraisal for Murder would introduce the characters and Jolie's job as a real estate appraiser by having her find a body while doing her job. Rekindling Motives would resolve long-ago and current murders, and in the third book (not then titled) Jolie would solve the murder of her good friend, Scoobie.

What?! Last time I looked, Scoobie was in book eleven, perfectly healthy. Clearly, he didn't die in When the Carny Comes to Town.

I found that not only was Scoobie the readers' favorite characters, he was mine. Funny and complicated, he became the character whose evolution propelled many aspects of the series.

That's not a bad thing -- unless the author becomes so invested in the characters that the mystery becomes secondary. It may not be something the author sees. Crimes still abound, the sleuth's life is disrupted while solving them, and the bad guys get their comeuppance.

Though invested in my characters, I promised I'd never put them first. I may have broken that commitment. In a recent five-star review of Underground in Ocean Alley, a reviewer noted how much she liked it and then said, "Read for the characters, not the mystery." Uh oh. I reread the book. I think the mystery is solid, but the characters' lives have become a bigger part of the story.

Do you remember the TV show House, with Hugh Laurie? The early seasons each show revolved around Dr. House and his team solving a complicated medical mystery. Then the show became a prime-time soap opera dealing with characters' love lives and Dr. House's opioid addiction. I stopped watching.

I swore that the 'Dr. House Effect' would never affect my writing. My books in the Jolie Getntil series have certainly not become soap operas. As I start book twelve in the series I've devised a 'mystery versus character' chart that I'll use to evaluate each chapter.

Personally, I think the most effective way to avoid becoming too focused on characters' lives or evolution is more plot twists. That's mystery plot, not redirection of character paths.

I may do more pre-writing plotting. I can't say outline, because my brain doesn't work that way. I always start with the idea for the murder and a couple of pages of what I think of as progression notes. I'll add to the latter. Now, to finish a book in the Logland series so I can get back to Jolie and friends...

Friday, March 29, 2019

Considerations for Your Home Writing Space

     I have been asked many times if I write at home or go somewhere to write. I do a mix. If you work at home, do you need a private office? No. That said, a private desk or corner is important.

     Clutter may not bother you, but it can distract you. You don’t need a fancy desk, but a reasonably clear writing surface can keep you focused.

     I bought two sets of kitchen drawers (they’re about 42 inches high) and placed a hollow wood door on them. Plenty of room for supplies, and table space for a couple of printers as well as the laptop.

     However, doors are big. When we moved to an apartment, I ditched the door and got the local Lowe’s store to cut a piece of particle board to a size that fit the space I needed.

     If you think this is a high desk, it is. I can stand as I write, or adjust the desk chair so it’s high enough to sit. If you always want to sit, put the board on a couple of two-drawer file cabinets.

     Some considerations for an efficient writing space are: 

  • Good lighting. That can mean an overhead or desk lamp, and a spot without glare from the windows.
  • Comfortable temperature. If you can’t control it, have a fan or lap blanket. 
  • Table and chair at a height that does not give you a stiff neck. You need to look straight ahead and, if in a straight chair, keep your feet flat on the floor and the keyboard on your lap.
  • Good recliner posture. If you write or edit in a recliner, use a lap desk or across-the-chair table so you can look straight ahead
  •  Safe distance from the kitchen. Some people eat if they can’t think of what to write, others to reward themselves after finishing a chapter. No problem if you can usually think what to write or you compose long chapters. The rest of us have been known to nosh too much.
  • Minimal media disturbance. Background music can be soothing, but if you tell Alexa to play rock or rap, that’s where your mind will travel. Television? Hard to imagine getting much done with the tube on.
  • Minimal visual distraction. Lots of photos or the weekend to-do list on the bulletin board in front of you will let your mind roam.
  • Research in easy reach. If you have folders with articles for reference, have them accessible. Same with a thesaurus or dictionary. However, if I have a huge pile of research materials, I can lose myself in them. Same with going from one web page to another.
        If little feet patter through your house, make sure tiny hands can’t grab a hanging cord and pull a printer on their heads.

      Finally, take a break. That writing space will be an even more efficient place to work if you take a morning or afternoon walk or jog. 
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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Stories are Instinctive - Writing Well is Learned

As a lifelong reader, you recognize good fiction. Two of my favorite authors are Anne Tyler and Jeffrey Eugenides, both of whom write what is termed literary fiction. I’ve learned so much about developing characters from reading their books.

I read lots of cozy mysteries (my genre), especially M.C. Beaton, Parnell Hall, Meg Muldoon, and Carolyn Haines. You may want to write in a genre you’re very familiar with, or you may have an idea for something completely different. 

A story can come instinctively. Writing to satisfy readers can take study and practice.
Learning to Write Fiction
A verbal storyteller engages with an audience through gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Your book can only compel via words on paper or on an ereader. That's harder. 

Fiction ideas often creep up on you. To bring them to fruition you need to develop a setting and cast of characters—to say nothing of a plot. 

Unless you are an exceptional writer, you need to learn a lot before publishing something good enough to earn respect -- and income. Yes, read good books by successful writers. Also read about structure, character development, setting, dialogue, and related topics. Readers deserve your best.

While you can learn a lot from books, it helps to talk about writing with others and perhaps learn in a classroom or similar environment. 

There are writing classes at community colleges, workshops offered by regional arts organizations, and writing conferences. Most years, writers' magazines such as The Writer or Poets and Writers provide lists of conferences. Check your library. 

There are many online classes now. They can be expensive, though not all are. I always prefer in-person learning, but your location or schedule may not permit that. 

Some of what you will learn in any method is basic-–in a mystery, the villain cannot be someone introduced in the last scene, nor can the reader know a character’s thoughts but not be informed of everything that character knows.  John Gilstrap (author of the Jonathan Grave books) put this aptly in a daylong course I took–-these are cheats. 

In romance, if the only thing keeping a couple apart is miscommunication, a reader will want to bop them on their heads and tell them to pick up the phone. A children’s book has to use appropriate vocabulary for the age group. 

You can probably think of important points in other genres. Personally, when I read science fiction, I want a description of the aliens. I don’t need many details on the humans. 

Resources (taken from Writing When Time is Scarce
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Rene Brown and Dave King

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats, Jane Cleland. Especially good for mysteries.